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Vote Science

3 November, 2008

One of the more disturbing trends in American politics is Know-Nothing-ism.  The actual Know Nothingists were an 1850s party (even before Ric’s time) who were trying to save America for the Americans and keep out all those whiskey-besotted Catholic Irishmen.  Though the Know-Nothing Party had a short life, the continuation of the attitude has a long and healthy history, mostly among reactionary and conservative voters.

Modern conservatism is a know-nothing party on multiple levels.  One level is the intense secrecy.  The Republican Party is secretive to the point of psychosis.  Even routine memos and public statements are labeled secret.  No part of our government is too insignificant or harmless to be hidden from the eyes of the citizens.  Part of this does, to be honest, make sense.  I think that many citizens would be horrified if they found out who was helping the political appointees make the rules.

On a more profound, and ultimately more damaging, level, modern conservatism is profoundly anti-science.  A big part of this is grounded in the term, “Faith Based Government.” 

Faith has been defined as the ability to believe something without, or in contradiction to, existing evidence.  There is not evidence for the existence of God;  people believe in God through faith.  There is no evidence that a tax cut has everpaid for itself;  it is an article of faith, though, among conservatives.  There is no evidence that tax cuts for the rich ever raised the income of the poor and middle class;  it is an article of faith that trickle-down economics works.

Some argue that the government should not be involved in basic research — if there is no visible economic benefit, the research is useless and should not be done but if there is a visible economic benefit, then the research should be done through private, not government, funding.  By this argument, the decimation is positive.  The problem, though, is that we have no way of knowing what research will be useful.

Unfortunately for the long-term health of America and the world, the faith-based approach has decimated publicly-funded research. Since 2000, grants funnelled through the various federal agencies have been flat or falling.  This does two things:  first, it slows down research into new medical treatments or new sources of power.  Second, it reduces much of the funding for research projects which help train our next generation of scientists.

The idea of faith based government is pernicious.  If research points to a problem (say, anthropogenic global warming), the leaders of government can choose not to believe because the possibility of it being true is either politically or economically uncomfortable to the friends and donors.  If research points to a program being useless (say, abstinence only sex education), or worse than useless, the leaders of our government can just state that they have faith that it works and continue pouring in the money.  Faith can be used as an excuse to block research.  Faith can be used to elevate short-term economic gain over actual research (Yellowstone and the snow mobiles).  Faith can be used as an excuse to destroy programs which work.  Faith can also mask incompetence (Heckuva job, Brownie).  Faith can be an excuse to deregulate (honest, if we deregulate the banks, they will behave themselves).  And faith can be used as an excuse to teach superstition (Palin’s support of Intelligent Design Creationism in the classroom) instead of actual science.

I know that Obama is a man of ‘faith.’  However, he is, by all evidence, a pragmatist.  I do not see him grasping a position because of a belief that it works.  I do see him actually weighing evidence.  Despite the financial hole that conservatives have created ($10.5 trillion in debt), Obama will, at the very least, arrest the decline in government funded research.  

Again, I cannot tell anyone to vote for an individual.  I can set out some ideas, some evidence, and hope that it leads an undecided voter to what I see as the only possible correct decision.

Of course, I really don’t see how anyone could possibly be undecided.  I see undecided voters this year as the kind of person who walks into a restaurant and, upon being told that the only two items on the menu are chicken and stewed diarrhea, asks how the chicken is cooked.

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